The Changing Face(s) Of Hockey East

If you drive by the building once known as the FleetCenter in Boston these days, you’ll see on the side of the building an enormous “Hello, My Name Is…” sticker on the side of the building, helping people remember the name is now the TD BankNorth Garden.

Next September Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna and his staff may want to borrow a few of those “Hello, My Name Is…” tags to identify the league’s head coaches.

Thursday, the list of Hockey East newbies grew by one when Merrimack announced that Massachusetts assistant Mark Dennehy will take over behind the bench, filling the vacancy left by the departure of Chris Serino.

Dennehy is the fourth new coach in Hockey East this season, joining Tim [nl]Army at Providence, Greg Cronin at Northeastern and Kevin Sneddon, who will not be a rookie coach at Vermont, but the Catamounts will play their first season in Hockey East next year having defected from the ECACHL.

All of this change is an aberration for Hockey East, a league that hasn’t seen this many new faces in one season in the league’s 20-plus year history.

“Make sure you get there early and get your scorecard,” said Bertagna referring to Hockey East Media Day. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I’ve had 40 percent of the league’s coaches new. It’s kind of a first time and I’ve been doing this for 25 years.”

The changing face – or faces, as it may be – could have a major impact on the style of hockey that is played in the league. At Providence, Army, an alum and former assistant with the Friars under Mike McShane, said he wants to emphasize a more offensive style. Army, as does Cronin at Northeastern, comes to Hockey East by way of professional hockey, with both coaches having served as NHL assistants as well as, most recently, head coaches in the American Hockey League.

“We’re going to try to raise the tempo and the pace of the team,” said Army when asked what he’ll change about the Friars club that last year finished seventh in Hockey East. “We’d like to integrate a more attacking mentality and challenge [the players’] limits offensively.”

Though defense isn’t being thrown out the window, Army feels that if there’s any one area where his team can gain a competitive advantage, it’s in producing offense in a league that for the past few years has been dominated by tight defenses and top-notch goaltending.

“Like all coaches, you recognize the importance of playing away from the puck, but what we’ll try to instill from the get go is an attacking mentality,” said Army. “I want [the players] to… try and raise the bar on the type of production we need to have to be successful. The only way you’re going to get there is to take the reins of them a bit to explore offensively.”

Besides new coaches that may change their team’s current look, you can also peak at Vermont, a team that comes from the often more-physical ECACHL, and will bring its rock-’em, sock-’em style to Hockey East.

All of this is very welcome to Bertagna and Hockey East.

“It’s exciting to have a whole new set of faces,” said Bertagna, who noted he’ll have a conference call at some point this summer to talk to the quartet of new faces on league policy and conduct. “It remains to be seen if [the changes] will be stressful. I’ve been pretty lucky in the years that I’ve worked in the two leagues (Hockey East and the ECAC). I haven’t had many guys on the radar screen [that have caused problems]. It’s been mostly good guys.”

Not ironic at all is that all of the three coaches hired this season have ties to Hockey East. Dennehy played at Boston College in the late 80s and has served on Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon’s staff at UMass since 2000. Cronin was an assistant coach under the legendary Shawn Walsh at Maine and even served as interim head coach when Walsh was suspended throughout most of 1996. As mentioned, Army was an assistant coach at Providence throughout the late 80s and early 90s.

When you look at the fact that both Army and Cronin come to Hockey East from the pro ranks, you’d think that the professional game is beginning to have a major influence on college hockey. Most, though, think it’s exactly the opposite.

“If you look at the makeup of the [NHL general managers], you have a lot more college influence,” said Bertagna. “I think there was a time when things happened on two parallel tracks [between college hockey and the NHL]. That’s changed, so it won’t surprise me to see more [crossover] in the future.

“The [coaching] pools aren’t that much different, it’s just the pro and college worlds getting closer together.”

Regardless of roots, regardless of backgrounds, the most important thing to understand is that Hockey East is changing. It will be interesting to watch each team’s style adapt.

For now, though, just put out your hand, and say, “Hello, I’m (fill in your name here). Welcome to Hockey East!”